Five lessons for good commissioning

February 29, 2016

Working on ‘het Timmerhuis’, Rotterdam’s new council office, was just like working in City Hall’s back yard. After all, the two buildings are just across the street from each other. Added to that, the project has always been under close public scrutiny. Léon Wielaard, property developer for Rotterdam City Council, shares five lessons with us that he learned over the past nine years.

1 - Always stay in control of quality

‘As a client, you really need to know what you want. Define your frameworks and decide what’s important for you.

In 2007 and 2008 we defined how we wanted to redevelop the council offices as a municipality. When you do this, you need to be in control as a client. We worked out our ideas in great detail. This stood us in good stead during the design competition we organised. When we chose the design by OMA, it was contested in the courts. We were able to defend our choice and the court ruled in our favour. You can assess a design with that kind of impact purely on the basis of quality, which is exactly what we did. That’s now the method we use to we tackle our design selections as a municipality.’

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2 - Don’t limit your options

'With such a project, you know you can’t work out everything in advance. During the project, you always encounter issues or questions that need to be clarified. This happened to us with the arched facade. We hadn’t worked it out in as much detail as the rest of the building; we just knew it had to be a kind of transparent glass curtain. As a municipality, we wanted to take advantage of the innovation in the market. While we were formulating the contract, we realised that these types of questions would pop up. That creates space for good solutions. After all, a contract is just a snapshot.’

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‘Some things in the design only become clear when you actually implement them. Originally, the steel joists and diagonals of the atrium were inside the glass walls, so they were in the workspaces. That’s not ideal. OMA wanted to resolve the problem by keeping them outside the workspaces. This seemed to be the easy and inexpensive solution, but Heijmans realised it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. It worked because we were prepared to work together to find out which solution was best for everybody. This type of process simply runs its course and you have to go along with it. You must be brave enough to keep exploring.’

3 - Guarantee quality and dare to change

‘When Heijmans was contracted, we transferred the team we, as a client, had had up to the provisional design. This was a key way of safeguarding the quality and the ideas on the project.

One thing I’d do differently next time is create mock-ups. Mock-ups give you a real feeling for the design and the materials. You can use them to talk to each other more specifically about how you can achieve the quality you want. Don’t be satisfied too easily. Next time I’d also ask for a second opinion more often. At a certain point, all the parties concerned are so involved in the project that an outsider’s expertise makes everything much clearer.’

‘One important lesson I recently applied to another project is that you shouldn’t be afraid of replacing people in your team. You might have somebody who is very capable, but if the relationship with that person isn’t working, dare to make the switch. Heijmans was brave enough to adapt its team during the project to get the job done, and it worked out very well in the end.’

4 - Make people co-responsible

‘The Timmerhuis project involved the development of almost ninety apartments under our own management and the maintenance of the entire building for 15 years. This means it’s extra important that the contractor chooses quality.

At the start we organised sessions in which we, OMA and Heijmans shared our interests, concerns and positions. As a result, we didn’t have one “I told you so” incident during the project. That’s how you build trust.’

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5 - Take advantage of each other’s strengths

‘You must know what you want and what other people are good at. For example, Heijmans is good at putting projects on the market. And as a builder, Heijmans closely monitors what’s happening during the environmental management process. The activities we began as a municipality − with art, culture and activities at the construction site – were expanded by Heijmans so that there was always something going on at the location during the project. And the name we introduced together at the start is still being used. That’s very unusual in Rotterdam, where it’s usually the locals who come up with the nickname.’